Canoe Vibes - Paddling in California - Stop the Tunnels

Lodi, CA: Paddling and Pubs Get Political

I wasn’t sure if I should do it.

In the revolving door of perpetual political one-sidedness – an internet feed full of my-way-or-the-highway cyber stances on deleted confidential email threads and misunderstood second amendment threats – my finger hovered hesitantly over the send button outside of Ollie’s Pub.

You can’t miss the message. I drove north on the five from a hazy fourth of July weekend in LA to Lodi, California – pronounced load-eye not load-y, to save you the laughter from the local bartenders that made me sweat. The fence signs, bumper stickers, and billboards from twenty miles out all the way to the patio at Ollie’s where I sat enjoying my Lagunitas IPA all preached one message: Stop the Tunnels.

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With plans to paddle the headwaters of the Mokelumne River in the San Francisco Bay Delta, chat kayak fishing with the crew at Headwaters Kayak, and set up the weekend’s fly fishing base camp on the Westgate Landing – a branch of the Mokelumne’s Islemouth Slough, I had some serious hesitations about opening the political discussion with fellow paddlers. Next thing you know, I’ll be getting my backcasts stuck in conversations of struggling California agricultural economics soon morphing into that of the big elephant in everyone’s room this election year.

Political Pandora doesn’t go back in the box and I didn’t want it to ruin the only green stretch of California that I had seen in two weeks by tapping on the lid.

The second Lagunitas brought strong considerations to ditch the interview questions that I had been scribbling, scratching out, and rewriting on my yellow notepad. The third brought more curiosity; I wanted to know more about the political water-feud taking over the Zinfandel Capital of the World, and, more importantly, Central California’s primary paddling destination. How does it affect the freshwater fishing, the destination paddling, and the small paddlesports businesses?

But like John Fogerty in his now-relevant-for-the-first-time-ever CCR song Lodi, I didn’t want to be stuck here long and I sure didn’t want to miss my paddling plans.

I knew that I shouldn’t dig deeper into the politics of this; don’t over complicate it. Paddling is paddling – do a story on paddling.

I couldn’t do it; I ordered a fourth.

I hit send.

What Are These Tunnels?

The curious email went out to Tracey Ziomek – a Johnson Outdoors pro, Kokatat fishing ambassador, and general advocate of water health in the Delta. She’s a heck of an angler and positive kayak fishing industry representative, coming highly recommended from Dan Arbuckle, owner of Headwaters Kayak – where I spent my day geeking out over gear and then stand up paddleboarding the Mokelumne River just outside of downtown Lodi.

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The Delta was beautiful. My balancing act on a Glide Retro 10’ SUP was fun but the Delta does so much more for Central California than just provide a soft-landing for out-of-town road trippers to fall into when things get tippy. It’s a lot of cushion; it encompasses about 1,000 miles of waterways from Sacramento to Stockton featuring the Sacramento River, the San Joaquin River, the American, Mokelumne, Cosumnes, and Calaveras. These rivers twist their way toward the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean, creating a web of waterways and subsidiary runoffs and sloughs to feed freshwater to paddlers, anglers, and, well, all that green agriculture growing in the fields.

Here’s the problem: While the Delta has an abundance of water, the rest of California, specifically the dry southwest side of the San Joaquin Valley, does not. To spread the love, Cali’s Governor Brown and some of the golden state’s largest corporate agribusinesses have proposed building two underground 35-mile and 40-foot wide tunnels to take a big, continuous gulp out of the Delta and spit it out on the to the thirsty big businesses of the southwest San Joaquin Valley.

Unfortunately, the tunnels won’t double as a waterslide. {Insert joke about making waterslides great again} Even worse, the water isn’t going to thirsty surfers on Hermosa Beach, the dry patch in center field at Dodgers Stadium, or Rosie the baby hippo at the LA Zoo – that I might be able to get behind. For as bad of a wrap as they get nationally, Los Angeles and other SoCal cities have pretty stellar and consistently improving plans to prioritize water use in tough, dry times.

Nope. The $50 billion twin tunnels, paid for by the California tax payers, essentially drench the already lush agribusiness and oil corporations – not Rosie.

What About the Fishing, Though?

With all that water, diverting the Sacramento River – the big daddy of freshwater flow into the Delta – with some Cali-sized tunnels wouldn’t seem like a big deal, which is what pro-tunnel advocates are banking on. But, with a little further consideration, it messes with the proven-fragile environment of, yeah, the paddling, the fishing, and all those scenic views

With large amounts of water being diverted through the tunnels, saltwater from further west will be pulled into the freshwater Delta – an unwanted replacement.

“If the tunnels are put into place, it makes sense that extreme changes in the ecosystem will inevitably result in a negative impact on the current fish population” Tracey explains. She lives on the Delta, fishes off her dock for largemouth, and has a passion for the big freshwater bass that come from her backyard. But she suspects with the saltwater creeping east to replace the now-displaced freshwater “the largemouth will not be able to adapt.”

“I have no desire to catch flounder off my dock” she pokes at the possibility of invasive brackish water. “I will leave the area with great loss and suspect many local fishermen will do the same.”

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Simply put, the tunnels threaten an unwanted and unhealthy extreme-makeover to the fisheries of the area and, well, these anglers aren’t going down without a fight. Their largemouth are important to them; that’s why environmental and fishing groups, including Tracey, are posting signs in strong opposition of these tunnels at pub patios to draw the attention of curious, Lagunitas-sipping vagabonds.

What’s Tracey’s plan? Keep raising awareness – one billboard, one community meeting, and one pub patio at a time.

What’s my plan? Unsure of the region’s future, I made the most of it while I could. I stand up paddleboarded the Mokelumne, canoed Islemouth Slough, went back to Ollie’s a couple more times hoping to find political prowess in the bottom of an empty mug, and tried not to overdose on In-N-Out double cheeseburgers – fingers crossed for Tracey and the future generations of largemouth on the Mokelumne.

Don’t just blindly take my opinion; it’s just one opinion and I’m just one person. Check the issue out for yourself with a quick Google search before making judgments. It’s the smart thing to do. But you knew that.


canoeing, editorial, fishing, fly fishing, kayak fishing, kayaking, paddleboarding, road trip, trip reports

Mark Vlaskamp

After four years as Marketing Director for Yak Gear, Mark now partners with creative outdoor brands and pursues the gray area between freelancing and (f)unemployment. Currently, he is floating between Austin and Houston, TX - still searching for new water, cool people, and cheap beer.

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